The Arts Beat: Spenser, Redux

The iconic fictional detective lives on—despite the odds.

Ace Atkins of Oxford, Mississippi

(Photo by Jay E. Nolan)

When the 39th novel about Boston private eye Spenser was released last spring, it was a bittersweet moment for his millions of fans: The author of the series, Cambridge resident Robert B. Parker, had recently passed away. Most readers assumed that meant the end of Spenser, too, but the author’s widow, Joan, wanted the character to survive. So together with series editor Chris Pepe, she sought out a writer to continue the detective’s adventures. Their choice? Ace Atkins of Oxford, Mississippi. Lullaby, the 40th Spenser novel, hits stores on May 1.

Atkins, 41, had long admired Parker and his evocation of Boston’s underbelly. After graduating from Auburn University in the early ’90s, he pursued journalism, earning a Pulitzer Prize nomination for his crime reporting at the Tampa Tribune. “The crime beat is where the stories are,” Atkins says. “That’s where you’re really going to find out what makes the city tick.” But the novelist in him eventually won out. He left journalism in 2001, and has written 11 thrillers since.

For his newest assignment, Atkins was tasked with capturing our city, despite being an outsider. He spent time here, meeting frequently with Joan Parker and putting his newsgathering skills to work. “I hit the pavement as a reporter, talked to people, and got a sense of the places I was writing about,” Atkins says. “It’s not just getting the details right, it’s also how Boston continues to evolve and change.” Case in point: Atkins is now visiting East Boston and Revere to research the next Spenser novel, which will involve casinos.

Atkins is aware that he’ll have critics among Parker devotees. (As one blogger put it: “This is sort of like the long-rumored Magnum, P.I. movie, starring someone other than Tom Selleck.”) But fans can rest assured that he’s as reverent as they are. “The one thing I did not want to do is involve my ego in the process and say, ‘Let’s reboot the series, and let’s change Spenser.’ My goal is to do it as true and respectful to Bob as I can.”

The 50-Word Review: Lullaby by Ace Atkins (5/1, Putnam, $27)
Okay, some local details miss the mark, but Lullaby is a brisk read, and Atkins gets the important things right, from Spenser’s dark sarcasm to the gritty attitude of Mattie Sullivan, a 14-year-old Southie girl trying to solve her mother’s murder.